The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

4.6 15
by Jenny Nordberg
     
 

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An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden Afghan custom that will change your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl.

Expanding on her widely read New York Times article "Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part," in which she uncovered the phenomenon of bacha posh (literally “dressed up like a boy” in

Overview

An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden Afghan custom that will change your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl.

Expanding on her widely read New York Times article "Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part," in which she uncovered the phenomenon of bacha posh (literally “dressed up like a boy” in Dari), the practice of disguising and raising young girls as boys, Jenny Nordberg constructs a powerful and moving account of the long-standing tradition that has enabled many girls to counter the challenges they face in a deeply segregated society where they have almost no rights.

     Through extensive in-depth reporting and first-person interviews, Nordberg offers a fascinating, almost fairy-tale-like look at how girls can be willed into looking, behaving, and acting as boys, why mothers would ask that of their daughters, and what ultimately happens when some girls do not want to rescind the prerogatives that go along with living as boys, and later as men.

     Divided into four parts, following strong characters through childhood, puberty, married life, and childbirth, The Underground Girls of Kabul charts the entire life cycle of Afghan women and gets to the heart of how bacha posh has profoundly affected generations, not only in the greater historical and political context of Afghanistan but also what it means to women everywhere now.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 05/26/2014
Alook at the furtive world of girls who pose as boys illuminates the cruelties of Afghanistan’s tradition of male supremacy in this searing exposé. Journalist Nordberg explores the lives of bacha posh—girls who are made over as boys so that their parents can claim the honor of having a son (or, according to folklore, improve their chances of conceiving a real one). Bacha posh experience what few Afghan females ever do: the freedom to go outside without a chaperone, speak their minds, and lead public lives—until adolescence arrives and they are forced back into femininity and sold off in arranged marriages to live in domestic confinement under their husband’s thumb. Nordberg’s vivid profiles of these girls takes in the quiet, harrowing struggles of other women in a society that accords them few rights. Included is a case of a charismatic woman who is a member of parliament and her family’s sole breadwinner—yet still helplessly subject to her husband’s abuse. Nordberg’s subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print; through a small breach in the wall of gender apartheid, she reveals the harsh ironies of a system that so devalues women that it forces them to become men. Agent: David Halpern, The Robbins Office. (Sept.)
School Library Journal
02/01/2015
The girls portrayed in this book are not resisting with weapons or spying: they are simply living their lives as boys. The reasons are varied. The family needs help in a store. Women need a "male" relative to walk them on errands. Many girls call their status as a "boy" a type of magic—by showing that the family is ready for a boy, a real male child may arrive. Often, members of the community know the child is really a girl, but accept this gender switch and go along with the ruse. Nordberg focuses her narrative on the adult Azita. Her father educated her, but once she reached her prime childbearing years, she was married off to a rural, illiterate cousin. Somehow, Azita manages to win a government seat in her new district. Western readers will root for Azita to find a way out of this fiercely patriarchal arrangement, but Nordberg is astounding in her ability to elicit sympathy and rage for the women portrayed, while also attempting to explain why more elaborate female resistance may not yet be possible. Teenagers will find a great deal to think about in this well-researched and readable piece of reporting.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-25
A journalist’s fascinating study of the Afghan subculture of young girls raised to be boys.In post-Taliban Afghanistan, men are still all-powerful. Women—even those who wield some political influence—live mostly in a state of servitude. Yet some girls manage to enjoy the privileges of being male by living as boys. Known asbacha posh, these young females are usually members of families in which the only children are girls. They “become” boys through family fiat and then live as males “as long as the lie will hold or as long as the community goes along with it,” which usually means until adolescence. To better understand this phenomenon, Nordberg not only researched the histories ofbachas,but also interviewed and observed them throughout various life stages. She tells the story of Mehran, the young fourth daughter of a female politician who “needed” a son to reinforce her family’s “good standing and reputation” in the community, as well as her own in the Afghan parliament. With several years until adolescence, Mehran could live in the happy freedom denied her sisters. However, as Nordberg shows through the story of Zahra, puberty—and the return to the second-class citizenship of womanhood it implied—could be gut-wrenchingly traumatic. For Shukria, being abacha poshrendered her unable to desire men and eventually made her undesirable to her husband, who divorced her. But for Nader, who managed to continue living as a man into adulthood, her third gender status inspired her to coach youngerbachaslooking to resist Afghan patriarchy and remain autonomous. As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to “building peaceful civilizations”—is the most powerful message of this compelling book.An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

A Salon 2014 Authors' Favorite Book

One of Buzzfeed's Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

A Business Insider Best Book of 2014

A Columbus Dispatch Best Book of 2014

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014

A PopMatters Best Book of 2014

An FP Interrupted Best Book of 2014

An IPI Global Observatory Recommended Book for 2015

A TruthDig Book of the Year, 2014

Finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award, Nonfiction

“Through extensive interviews with former bacha posh, observation of present ones and conversations with doctors and teachers, Nordberg unearths details of a dynamic that one suspects will be news to the armies of aid workers and gender experts in post-invasion Afghanistan.”–New York Times Book Review

“Jenny Nordberg has produced a striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures...[A] finely written book.”–Washington Post

“Five years of intensive reporting have yielded this gritty, poignant, and provocative collage of intimate portraits…Nordberg conveys captivating nuance and complexity; just when you feel some kind of judgment or conclusive opinion is within reach, she deftly turns the tables, leaving us to reexamine our own prejudices and societal norms as we struggle with questions that are perhaps unanswerable.”–Elle

“Nordberg’s immersive reporting reveals an astonishingly clear picture of this resourceful, if imperfect, solution to the problem of girlhood in a society where women have few rights and overwhelming restrictions.”–The Boston Globe

“Nordberg’s book is riveting, bringing a practice previously unknown to the West to light, and continuing to elucidate the plight of Afghan women, whose supposed inferiority is so ingrained in their culture that Western feminism can make few inroads.”–Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Nordberg's intimate exploration leaves us rooting for her brave subjects.”–Mother Jones

“Nordberg creates a moving intimacy with these stories, weaving them into the bigger picture of contemporary Afghanistan. Diving deep into the lives and hearts of people who are usually ignored, she reveals the enormity of a localized struggle even while grounding it in broader human experience, never allowing the reader to reduce her subjects to curiosities.”–DallasMorningNews.com

“In clear, simple prose, Nordberg describes her encounters with several current or former bacha posh, including a nurse who kept the role until a month before her wedding, a tae kwon do instructor who now guides younger “underground girls,” and an adolescent still resisting being turned into a woman… The book raises provocative questions about gender roles in Afghanistan and beyond.”–The Columbus Dispatch

“Fascinating… Nordberg manages to capture the strength of these women, as well as their vulnerabilities, to show the psychological toll bacha posh has on those who endure it, and the ability of women to adapt to the constricts society places on them.” –ForeignPolicy.com

“In fluid narrative style, Nordberg explores the [bacha posh] phenomenon through compelling individual portraits… In addition to presenting a rare glimpse of Afghan life, The Underground Girls of Kabul explores the ways that gender identity is shaped and policed. Extending well beyond Afghanistan, this book compels the reader to rethink gender differences.”—Straight.com
 
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is an outstanding work of journalism that uncovers new information about an important subject. It’s also an extraordinarily well-written book, full of riveting stories about the real lives of girls and women in Afghanistan today.” PopMatters.com

“Five years of research, and an almost novelistic approach to her findings, has produced a book full of fresh stories.” —Razia Iqbal, Independent 

“Nordberg's hopeful yet heart-breaking account offers a dazzling picture of Afghan life . . . She is refreshingly non-judgmental . . . Thanks to this book, a little more light has been shone on a country and society so often misunderstood” —Independent on Sunday
 
“Partly a reflection on the politics of sex and gender . . . but it is also a tale of discovery.” —Sunday Telegraph
 
“This fascinating study sheds new light on what it's like to be female in the country declared the worst in the world to be a woman . . . This powerful account of powerlessness resonates with the most silenced voices in society.” —The Observer

“[A] searing exposé…Nordberg's subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print.” –Publishers Weekly [starred]

“A stunning book… Nordberg has done some staggering work in this unique, important, and compelling chronicle. Book clubs will be riveted, and will talk for hours.” –Booklist [starred]

“As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to ‘building peaceful civilizations’—is the most powerful message of this compelling book. An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.” – Kirkus Reviews

“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a groundbreaking feat of reportage, a kaleidoscopic investigation into gender, resistance, and the limits of cross-cultural understanding. Jenny Nordberg is a riveting storyteller and she has an astonishing tale to tell.” –Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World

“Jenny Nordberg has given us a fascinating look into a hidden phenomenon of extreme patriarchal societies: a form of gender-bending far riskier and more rewarding than Western academia's trendy, abstract gender categories. Nordberg's reporting is thorough and sensitive, her writing vivid and insightful. You will not forget this book; it will haunt you.” – Robin Morgan

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a brilliant, urgent, groundbreaking work. It is a call to action, and a reminder that even under the greatest abuses of power women have found ways to fight and flourish. The inspiring story of the bacha posh is not just a tale of ingenuity and survival in Afghanistan. It is an excavation of the deep and insidious roots of global misogyny, and an offering of hope.” —Cara Hoffman, author of Be Safe I Love You

The Underground Girls of Kabul draws back the curtain on the world of bacha posh, young Afghan girls whose families disguise them as boys and raise them, until adolescence intervenes, as sons. Jenny Nordberg's book is a tremendous feat of reporting and storytelling: until her work on the custom of bacha posh was published in the New York Times, the practice had never been systematically documented, and her narrative is so finely-observed that it often reads like fiction. Nordberg's curiosity, her humor, and her genuine warmth for her subjects come through on every page.” – Katherine Zoepf, fellow, the New America Foundation

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a riveting, firsthand account of what life as a girl is like in Afghanistan and how it often means becoming a boy.  Jenny Nordberg has written a compelling and important work that exposes the profound gender prejudice that exists, in different forms, all over the world.” –Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen

“Forget everything you thought you knew about gender and what it means to be a woman or man. Jenny Nordberg’s exquisitely reported look at why Afghans choose to raise their girls as boys is nothing less than heartbreaking, mind-bending, and mesmerizing—not to mention timely.”—Lauren Wolfe, director of Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege

“Nordberg brings to light a world that no Afghan speaks of, but everyone knows: the world of girls raised as boys, usually until puberty.  In a society where being a girl means living as chattel, and where families without boys are shamed, the bacha posh tradition arose, as it has in other highly patriarchal societies.  Going deeper, Nordberg discovers that the bacha posh, once adults, become a subversive force: having tasted freedom and opportunity, these women can never go back.  They stand up—for themselves, their daughters, and their country.  The former bacha posh may yet change Afghanistan for the better . . . Nordberg’s book is a pioneering effort to understand this hidden world.” –Valerie M. Hudson, professor and George H.W. Bush Chair, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
 
“The investigation into bacha posh gives a new and unique perspective on the women’s situation, gender and resistance in Afghanistan. The author tells the story with empathy and respect for the women who have let her into their lives. This book will interest both those who want to learn about Afghanistan and those wanting to understand how gender works, and it is a must-read for both Afghanistan and gender specialists.” –Sari Kouvo, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network

The Underground Girls of Kabul is an amazing book. The fact that Nordberg brings this to light is eye-opening to everyone—even to Afghans. It is the truth that many Afghans live with it as part of their life.”–Naheed Bahram, program director of Women for Afghan Women

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307952493
Publisher:
Crown/Archetype
Publication date:
09/16/2014
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
616,883
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Rebel Mother

Azita, a few years earlier

Our brother is really a girl."

One of the eager-looking twins nods to reaffirm her words. Then she turns to her sister. She agrees. Yes, it is true. She can confirm it.

They are two ten-year-old identical girls, each with black hair, squirrel eyes, and a few small freckles. Moments ago, we danced to my iPod set to shuffle as we waited for their mother to finish a phone conversation in the other room. We passed the headphones between us, showing off our best moves. Though I failed to match their elaborate hip rolls, some of my most inspired sing-along was met with approval. It actually sounded pretty good bouncing off the ice-cold cement walls of the apartment in the Soviet-built maze that is home to a chunk of Kabul's small middle class.

Now we sit on the gold-embroidered sofa, where the twins have set up a tea service consisting of glass mugs and a pump thermos on a silver-plated tray. The mehman khana is the most opulent room in an Afghan home, meant to show off the wealth and good moral character of its owners. Cassette tapes with Koran verses and peach-colored fabric flowers sit on a corner table where a crack has been soldered with Scotch tape. The twin sisters, their legs neatly folded underneath them on the sofa, are a little offended by my lack of reaction to their big reveal. Twin number two leans forward: "It's true. He is our little sister."

I smile at them, and nod again. "Yes." Sure.

A framed picture on a side table shows their brother posing in a V-neck sweater and tie, with his grinning, mustached father. It is the only photo on display in the living room. His oldest daughters speak a shaky but enthusiastic English, picked up from textbooks and satellite television from a dish on the balcony. We just have a language barrier here, perhaps.

"Okay," I say, wanting to be friendly. "I understand. Your sister. Now, what is your favorite color, Benafsha?"

She goes back and forth between red and purple before passing the question to her sister, where it gets equally serious consideration. The twins, both dressed in orange cardigans and green pants, seem to do most things in perfect girly synchronicity. Their bobbing heads are topped with glittery hair scrunchies, and only when one speaks will the other's scrunchie be still for a few seconds. Those moments are a beginner's chance to tell them apart: A small birthmark on Beheshta's cheek is the key. Beheshta means "flower"; Benafsha, "paradise."

"I want to be a teacher when I grow up," Beheshta volunteers for our next topic.

When it becomes each of the twins' turns to ask a question, they both want to know the same thing: Am I married?

My response mystifies them, since—as they point out—I am very old. I am even a few years older than their mother, who at thirty-three is a married mother of four. The twins have another sister, too, in addition to their little brother. Their mother is also in the national parliament, I say to the twins. So there are many things I am not, compared to her. They seem to appreciate that framing.

Their brother suddenly appears in the doorway.

Mehran, age six, has a tanned, round face, deep dimples, eyebrows that go up and down as he grimaces, and a wide gap between his front teeth. His hair is as black as that of his sisters, but short and spiky. In a tight red denim shirt and blue pants, chin forward, hands on hips, he swaggers confidently into the room, looking directly at me, and pointing a toy gun in my face. Then he pulls the trigger and exclaims his greeting: phow. When I fail to die or shoot back, he takes out a plastic superhero from his back pocket. The wingman has blond hair, shiny white teeth, two gun belts slung across his bulging chest, and is armed with a machine gun. Mehran says something in Dari to the figurine and then listens intently to him. They seem to agree: The assault has been a success.

Benafsha comes alive at my side, seeing the chance to finally prove her point. She waves her arms to call her brother's attention: "Tell her, Mehran. Tell her you are our sister."

The corners of Mehran's mouth turn downward. He sticks his tongue out in a grimace before bolting, almost crashing, into his mother as she walks into the room.

Azita's eyes are lined with black kohl, and she wears a little bit of blush. Or perhaps it is the effect of having had a cell phone pressed to her ear. She is ready now, she exclaims in my direction. To tell me what I came to ask about—what it is like, almost a decade into America's longest war and one of the largest foreign aid efforts of a generation, to be an Afghan woman here.

When we first meet, on this day, I am researching a television piece on Afghan women and Azita has been a member of the country's fairly new parliament for four years. Elected to the Wolesi Jirga, one of the legislative branches installed a few years after the 2001 defeat of the Taliban, she had promised her rural voters in Badghis province that she would direct more of the foreign-aid influx to their poor, far-flung corner of Afghanistan.

The parliament she entered was heavily populated with drug kingpins and warlords and seemed to be in a state of paralysis due to deeply entrenched corruption, but it was at least an attempt at democracy that many Afghans expressed hope for. It followed many forms of failed governance during the last century: absolute monarchy, communism, and an Islamic emirate under the Taliban. Or no government at all in times of civil war.

As some foreign diplomats and aid workers around Kabul came to know Azita as an educated female parliamentarian who not only spoke Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and Russian, but also English, and who seemed relatively liberal, invitations to events poured in from the outside world. She was flown to several European countries and to Yale University in the United States, where she spoke of life under the Taliban.

It was not unusual for Azita to invite foreigners to her rented home in Macroyan, either to show her version of normal life in a Kabul neighborhood. Here, laundry flutters on the balconies of dirt-gray four-story buildings, interrupted by the occasional patch of greenery, and in the early mornings, women gather at the hole-in-the-wall bakeries while men perform stiff gymnastic exercises on the football field. Azita takes pride in being a host and showing herself off as an exception to the way Afghan women are portrayed in the outside world—as secluded inside their homes, with little connection to society, often illiterate and under the spell of demonizing husbands who do not allow them any daylight. And definitely not receiving visits from farangee, or foreigners, as the British were once dubbed by Afghans. These days, foreigners usually go under amrican, regardless of their passport.

Azita enjoys demonstrating her running water, the electricity, the television set in her bedroom; all paid for with money she has made as the breadwinner of the house. She knows that impresses foreigners. Especially female foreigners. With her glowing cheeks, sharp features, and military-grade posture, elegantly draped in black fabric from head to toe, and exuding a warm scent of musk mixed with something sweet, Azita does look different from Afghanistan's majority of women. At five feet six—perhaps a little taller in her pointy size-eleven sling-back heels—she even towers over some visitors. Those usually arrive in more practical shoes, as if on a trek somewhere.

On the topic of progress for women since 2001, Azita expresses little satisfaction to visiting foreigners, of which I am just the latest: Yes, more women are seen on the streets of Kabul and a few other larger cities than when the Taliban was in power, and more girls are enrolled in school, but just as in earlier eras when reforms were attempted, most progress for women is limited to the capital and a handful of other urban areas. Much of what the Taliban had banned and decreed regarding women is still effectively law in large parts of this mostly illiterate country, enforced by conservative tradition. In many provinces, burkas are still commonplace, and women rarely work or leave the house without their husbands. The majority of marriages are still forced, honor killings are not unusual, and any involvement of the justice system in a rape case usually means that only the victim goes to jail, charged with adultery or with having had premarital sex—unless she, as a commonly imposed solution, is forced to marry her rapist. Women burn themselves to death using cooking oil to escape domestic abuse here, and daughters are still a viable, informal currency used by fathers to pay off debts and settle disputes.

Azita is one of few women with a voice, but to many, she remains a provocation, since her life is different from that of most women in Afghanistan and a threat to those who subjugate them. In her words: "If you go to the remote areas of Afghanistan, you will see nothing has changed in women's lives. They are still like servants. Like animals. We have a long time before the woman is considered a human in this society."

Azita pushes her emerald green head scarf back to reveal a short black ponytail, and rubs her hair. I shake off my scarf, too, and let it fall down on my neck. She looks at me for a moment, where we sit in her bedroom. "I never want my daughters to suffer in the ways I have suffered. I had to kill many of my dreams. I have four daughters. I am very happy for that."

Four daughters. Only four daughters? What is going on in this family? I hold my breath for a moment, hoping Azita will take the lead and help me understand.

And she does.

"Would you like to see our family album?"

We move back into the living room, where she pulls out two albums from under a rickety little desk. The children look at these photos often. They tell the story of how Azita's family came to be.

First: a series of shots from Azita's engagement party in the summer of 1997. Azita's first cousin, whom she is to marry, is young and lanky. On his face, small patches of hair are still struggling to meet in the middle as a full beard; a requirement under Taliban rule at that time. The fiance wears a turban and a brown wool vest over a traditional white peran tonban—a long shirt and loose pants. None of the one hundred or so guests are smiling. By Afghan standards, where a party can number more than a thousand, it was a small and unimpressive gathering. It is a snapshot of the city meeting the village. Azita is the elite-educated daughter of a Kabul University professor. Her husband-to-be: the illiterate son of a farmer.

A few staged moments are captured. The fiance, attempting to feed his future wife some of the pink and yellow cake. She turns her head away. At nineteen, Azita is a thinner and more serious version of her later self, in a cobalt blue silk caftan with rounded shoulder pads. Her fingernails have been painted a bright red to match crimson lips, set off by a white-powdered face that reads as a mask. Her hair is a hard, sprayed bird's nest. In another shot, her future husband offers her a celebratory goblet from which she is expected to drink. She stares into the camera. Her matte, powdery face is streaked with vertical lines running from dark brown eyes.

A few album pages later, the twins pose with Azita's mother, a woman with high cheekbones and a strong nose in a deeply lined face. Both Benafsha and Beheshta blow kisses onto their bibi-jan, who still lives with their grandfather in the northwest of Afghanistan. Soon, a third little girl makes her appearance in the photos. Middle sister Mehrangis has pigtails and a slightly rounder face. She poses next to the twin mini-Azitas, who suddenly look very grown up in their white ruffle dresses.

Azita flips the page: Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in 2005. Four little girls in cream-colored dresses. All ordered by size. The shortest has a bow in her hair. It is Mehran. Azita puts her finger on the picture. Without looking up, she says: "You know my youngest is also a girl, yes? We dress her like a boy."

I glance in the direction of Mehran, who has been skidding around the periphery as we have talked. She has hopped into another chair and is talking to the plastic figurine again.

"They gossip about my family. When you have no sons, it is a big missing, and everyone feels sad for you."

Azita says this as if it is a simple explanation.

Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here. A family is not only incomplete without one; in a country lacking rule of law, it is also seen as weak and vulnerable. So it is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son-it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others. She could be dismissed as a dokhtar zai, or "she who only brings daughters." Still, this is not as grave an insult as what an entirely childless woman could be called—a sanda or khoshk, meaning "dry" in Dari. But a woman who cannot birth a son in a patrilineal culture is—in the eyes of society and often herself—fundamentally flawed.

The literacy rate is no more than 10 percent in most areas, and many unfounded truths swirl around without being challenged. Among them is the commonly held belief that a woman can choose the sex of her unborn baby simply by making up her mind about it. As a consequence, a woman's inability to bear sons does not elicit much sympathy. Instead, she is condemned both by society and her own husband as someone who has just not desired a son strongly enough. Women, too, often resort to blaming their own bodies and weak minds for failing to deliver sons.

The character flaws often add up about such a woman in the eyes of others: She is surely difficult and obnoxious. Perhaps even evil. The fact that the father actually determines the sex of a child, as the male sperm carries the chromosome makeup for each child and determines whether a boy or a girl will be born, is unknown to most.

Meet the Author

JENNY NORDBERG is an award-winning journalist based in New York. A foreign correspondent and columnist for the Swedish national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, she has a long record of investigative reports for, among others, The New York Times, where she also contributed to a series that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. She has reported extensively from Europe and the Middle East, and in 2010, she was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism for a television documentary on Afghan women. She has been selected as a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).  
 

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
This book exceeded my expectations. I knew little about the females of the Middle East and this book enlightened me about the Afghanistan population, more than I ever imagined. If you could see my copy, you would know that I enjoyed this book immensely. I have pages of notes pertaining to this book that have opened my eyes and I have talked about this book with many others, it has definitely made an impact on my life. Gender equality, gender power and gender identity issues are words that run deep in this region of the world. I was shocked to learn just how important sons were for this region, so important that a female in the household will dress and act as a male to play this role should a boy not be born into the household. How long they hold out in this charade depends on a few factors which the author digs into and shows us, the reader. The author brings to us the lives of a few individuals who are walking in these very shoes. I found their lives very fascinating and interesting. The pros and the cons are examined and I felt that the author provided a very thoroughly job explaining this complicated life which is so different from our very own but also has a few characteristics of issues that we deal with here in our own country. The author addresses many subjects in the book surrounding the female individual including marriage, jobs, divorce and children. The author brings us personal stories and females who have walked the walk in these different situations so we hear firsthand what their lives were like and/or what they are experiencing firsthand. There is nothing like hearing it come from a person who has actually lived in those conditions. I felt so connected and informed about the females in this region and I know bits of my heart were breaking but to them, they knew no different. I could sing praises of this book forever and I know my husband is probably sick of me reading quotes of the book to him so read this book. The author will take you on a journey where you will meet some individuals who are trying to rise above it all. Thank you Goodreads for my copy of this book. This is my own opinion of this book.
Sparrowhawk_24 More than 1 year ago
NOTE: In view of the non-fictional account of true events within this book, this will most likely be an unqualified book review because you really can’t critique what is factual; like, the characters and the stories in this hardcover. Alright so here’s the scoop: I have sat at my desk holding this book tightly against my chest, all while staring at a blank post template for countless minutes, unable to decide how I should proceed with this review. Only to end up walking away completely defeated, and ultimately disappearing under my covers, all while sobbing and whispering faint, “I can’t! I can’t! I cant’s!” into my crushed reality, because the truth of the matter is, how do you even begin to review factual events that are taking place today without opening a floor for debate? I for one, do not like debates; especially, around events as heavy-handed as these. Granted, a story of this magnitude should be told, there’s no arguing that, and it goes without saying, Jenny Nordberg writes this emotional narrative with so much grace and humility. For one, she carries the narration of the story without hysterics; not once, does she shame, degrade or disprove the people of Afghanistan or their culture; nor does she, retaliate against the opposition. I commend her conduct and inclination to avoid disparagement, but at the same time, I would love to know how she truly felt given the circumstances surrounding the prose. With that in mind, I remember with almost painful clarity the way in which Jenny collectedly painted the unsanitary conditions within the hospitals of Afghanistan where Afghan women lay helplessly in labor awaiting their eventual fate:  If a daughter is born, it is not uncommon for a new mother to leave this delivery room in tears. She will return to the village, her head bowed in shame, where she may be derided by relatives and neighbors. She could be denied food for several days. She could be beaten or relegated to the outhouse to sleep with animals as punishment for bringing the family another burden. And if the mother of a newborn has several daughters already, her husband may be ridiculed as a weakling with whom nature refuses to cooperate, a mada posht. Translation: “He whose woman will only deliver girls.”  The only thing I feel right now, is the weight of my own tears as I just finished sharing this quote with you. . . I experienced this book in a fairly odd way too, during the time when the influence of ISIS began to overrun the Middle East, the time when I had just finished reading The Kite Runner, and during the time when I was deeply involved in my community’s House of Prayer; praying for the Middle East in specific. Therefore, my emotions and my thoughts were in a whirlwind of chaos. Needless to say, I often times read and received the stories of these women in a sort of shell-shocked, wide-eyed paralysis.  The Underground Girls of Kabul, is a great book -allow me to rephrase that, it is a praiseworthy informative book, but it reads similar to a distressing and painful inhumanity of a Holocaust memoir, and for this reason, my recommendation is in a mixed bag. I am afraid that is all I can truly say; I don’t know if this is a book I could recommend because it is slightly different from most of the books I speak highly of. Even so, it is a must read as it will pluck you from the norm of the popular fictional realms and will hurl you into a reality that will give you a closer look at what is really taking place in the world around us. IN A NUTSHELL: // Jenny Nordberg delivers a powerfully written narrative that sheds light on what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan. More respectively, “The worst country in the world to be a woman”, according to the United Nations // It is a story about survival as well as the short comings the most silenced voices in our society are forced to confront // If you are debating on whether to read this book or not, please know that it is not a light read by any means; nor is it a “feel good” story either; on the contrary! It convicts and poses questions about your own humanity and society  // The novel reads just like a documentary // It is a story about families that are compelled to disguise their daughter’s gender for the purpose of acquiring income and legitimacy; without a son, a family is seen as weak and vulnerable // I personally valued the book. It kind of just makes you want to hold your little girls and tell them how much you love them, and just sob! It’s worth the read, but with reservations 3 THINGS I LIKED: + The book cover and overall presentation of the book is stunning. There is an itemized table of contents, a detailed index, an author’s note with follow-up accounts of each character’s life story, and the edge of the pages have a vintage look to them; I love it! + Jenny Nordberg who risked her own life in order to raise awareness about the practice of bacha posh and the conflicts the women in Afghanistan face. I know that a simple thank you will never be enough to express how incredibly grateful I am for your book, but in all seriousness, thank you. From the bottom of my heart.  + Despite the incomprehensible religion and customs, I came to discover that many of the women in Afghanistan who have once lived as a bacha posh, stand proud in their ethnicity and take pride in their country. Like Azita for example, a former parliamentarian whose life Nordberg explores in great detail. Azita is a respectable revolutionary and out of all the characters, she gave me hope and I long to see some sort of reformation through her life, and that of Nordberg’s 3 THINGS I DID NOT LIKE: - "The Taliban leadership also argued for sexual abstinence and maintained that contact between men and women in society should be avoided, as it would only serve to weaken warriors.” For a group of men who long to rule a male dominant society, I have to wonder, do they realize that women are necessary in order to produce. . .well, more men? Are they that ignorant to the fact that they sometimes go as far as to murder their own little girls because they are a “burden?” I just cannot comprehend this barbaric belief; it’s inhumane! - "The responsibility for men’s behavior, indeed for civilization itself, rests entirely with women here, and in how they dress and behave. Men’s animalistic impulses are presumed   to be overwhelming and uncontrollable. An as men are brutal, brainless savages, women must hide their bodies to avoid being assaulted. In most societies, a respectable woman, to varying degrees, is expected to cover up. If she doesn’t, she is inviting assault. Any woman who gets into “trouble” by drawing too much attention from men will have only herself to blame.”  - It is frightening to think after reading this book, that this is a prevalent issue in our modern-day. Frankly, I struggled to reason how when a bacha posh reaches the age of puberty, it’s suddenly convenient to reverse the gender roles as if it is not a difficult process. This has got to be a complex psychological struggle for every bacha posh female! I especially saw this in Zahra’s story Overall Rating:  Storyline | 5/5  Characters | 5/5  Violence | Moderate Profanities | None Sexual Content | Minor  Mature subjects/themes include, but are limited to:  loss of a loved one, death, assault, family strife, arranged marriages, discrimination; especially against women and little girls, cross dressing, social conflict, politics, warfare, coming of age, sexism, fundamentalist cultures, Taliban, Islam, honor killings
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was so unaware that my knowledge of the Afghan peoples and cultures was so miniscule! I AM NOW MUCH MORE ENLIGHTENED,SADDENED AND EMPOWERED TO LEARN MORE TO HELP
D-B1 More than 1 year ago
An interesting and revealing book I received free from Goodreads First Reads. Jenny Nordberg, a journalist, realistically tells the reader what life is like for a female in the country of Afghanistan. A baby boy is celebrated and revered while a baby girl is not highly looked upon. A woman who does not give birth to a baby boy finds herself doing everything in her power to have a baby boy and may have to have a girl pretending to be a boy as long as possible. Read the highly recommended book by the talented author, Jenny Nordberg.
nfmgirl More than 1 year ago
Author Jenny Nordberg began to hear hints of something hidden in Afghanistan. Hidden within a culture that values men over women, and the birth of a baby boy is something to celebrate while the birth of a baby girl can lead to shame and public ridicule, there is a hidden tradition carried out by some families, whereby young girls are raised as boys. These girls are referred to as bacha posh. There are different motivations for having a daughter live as a bacha posh. Some do it in order to improve their reputation and standing after having only daughters, while others do it for the convenience of having a "son" to assist with things like running errands and escorting the other daughters in the family (in a society that forbids women and young girls to go out unsupervised without a male present). And yet others do it for the benefit of the girl, in order to allow her to have the experience and confidence that comes with living as a boy. They are entitled to sit with their father and his friends, to work, to play in the street. There are special benefits allowed young boys that girl's are not permitted. Here in America we tend to oversimplify this issue. We think Afghanistan simply needs to change their culture of making women second-class citizens who live at the whim of the men in their lives. However we don't understand the complexity of the issue, in a society that views the years before puberty of both men and women as simply "preparation for procreation". Their economy is essentially based heavily on the ability to sell daughters into marriage and to form tribal alliances. At one point, the author asks people about the differences between men and women. Men give a list of varied responses, such as women are more "sensitive" or more "emotional". But the majority of the women give the same answer: freedom. Which led me to think: In the West, we focus on things like women being forced to cover their heads. However it is so much simpler than that. The women would happily cover their heads as an expression of their faith, if only they could have freedom: the freedom to choose to leave the house, to travel, to go to school, to choose whether or not to marry and whom to marry, whether or not to have children. This is why every Afghan woman wishes she were a man. Men have freedom; women do not. My final word: I absolutely loved this book! It made me realize how complicated this issue is. You can't just say, "Women should be treated equally..." and expect that is it. This is a cultural issue that has developed over thousands of years, and has economical implications as well as many other things. It is something that needs to be slowly changed, and it is something that needs to be changed from within the Afghan people and culture, and not from the outside from the West. The author uses the stories of multiple girls who have lived as bacha posh to illustrate the benefits and downfall of this practice. The book was well done, although the transition between subjects was sometimes difficult to follow, and you'd have to try and figure out who was being written about now. This was an unquestionably fascinating read, and a favorite of 2014!
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
In a country where a family’s worth is dependent on their having a son, some Afghans have found a creative way to circumvent the system. It’s more common than you’d expect, rarely discussed in polite company, and has been going on for generations. What do they do, you ask? Why, they raise their daughters as sons. In a stunning story of a trend discovered completely by accident, Nordberg takes us on a journey through Afghanistan and into the lives of families, and women, who are bucking tradition. The Underground Girls of Kabul is an incredible story about what it takes to survive in an oppressive culture and the creative ways families find to survive within it. The fact that Nordberg stumbled across this trend completely by accident only adds to the book, for the reader feels like he/she is learning each new piece of information alongside the author. Her curiosity and ability to coax families to open up is stunning, making this a book that everyone should read. Allison @ The Book Wheel
TRFeller 10 months ago
Although Afghanistan is a highly patriarchal culture, there is an unspoken tradition of the bacha posh, a girl who is allowed to dress like a boy and assume the role of the male gender until they come of age. It normally takes place in a family in a family that has several daughters but no sons. This allows the daughters to leave the house without a male relative and actually elevates the family’s standing in the community, even if everyone knows the supposed boy is really a girl. The main characters are Azita, a well-educated female politician who was allowed to dress as a boy for a few years while working in her father’s shop; Mehran, Azita’s fourth daughter who at the age of six was transformed into a boy to increase the family’s prestige, Zahra, a tomboy who is refusing to turn back into a girl although she is of childbearing age, Shukria, a nurse who lived as a boy and man for twenty years but eventually married and had three children, Nader, a grown woman who still dresses as a man and teaches martial arts to girls, and Shahed, an undercover female police officer. The author regards traditional Afghan attitudes toward gender, a combination of Islam and Zoroastrianism, to be an extreme case of gender discrimination in history and around the world. I found the book to be quite interesting, but my wife got angry as she read it.
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robtennant More than 1 year ago
I know that the situation in Afghanistan is not the norm for all women in the Muslim faith.  I know that there are situations in some Christian communities where women lack equality with men, access to education, and opportunities to reach their potential.  I say this because I don’t want to overstate the case.  However, I find Jenny Nordberg’s book about women in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan to be credible. Because it is believable, it is hard to accept.  Women in Afghanistan have no rights.  Even the individual Nordberg gives the most attention to, the politician is under heel in her own home.  Jenny Nordberg has opened a world that most Americans and westerners never see or understand.  Now that she has revealed it, I still don’t understand it. I come away from my reading of “The Underground Girls of Kabul” thinking there is no way in traditional Islam that women can ever be fully human.  Combined with the experiences shared in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel,” I am left to conclude that a main thread of Islam involves the violent subjugation of women.   I am a Baptist pastor who tries to afford women every opportunity men have within the church.  My more conservative Baptist peers do not feel women should be allowed to be ordained as pastors.  I do.  However, even the conservative Baptists in the United States have no objection to women becoming doctors, lawyers, politicians, or university professors.  The rights denied women in conservative American Christianity while wrong pale in comparison to the way women are subjugated in normative Islamic life in Afghanistan. I think Jenny Nordberg went through real hardship to research this book and her final product is a gift to any thinking person who wants to understand the situation in conservative Islamic communities.  Writers who go the extent she did to accomplish her work help make humankind smarter.
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LouisianaAlice More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed reading this book but I was certainly fascinated by the insight into a cultur of which I know very little. As an American, it is hard to understand a society where women have so few choices about their lives. Ms. Nordberg did an excellent job of pointing out this difficulty while giving useful information for understanding what seems a strange custom of open and accepted deception. It was also interesting to see how this was actually beneficial to the individual and women as a whole in this country. Would recommend it to anyone wanting more information about this country and the role of women there.
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